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Public view on scientists

  1. Sep 29, 2007 #1
    I've been thinking about something and wanted to hear some opinions from this forum.

    Basically, I'm under the impression that the general public opinion on scientists took a turn for the worse over the last two decades or so. It's not that I'm terribly concerned about it being a physicist, but I find it interesting to look at the reasons.

    My main point of comparison is the first half of the 20th century, and specific examples like Einstein. From what I've read, he had "rockstar" popularity, being a public figure that even those completely unrelated to anything scientific would easily recognize and respect. He may be an extreme case, but I'm under the impression that he projected an image of a scientist bringing progress and understanding that extended to those who were not as well known.

    I just can't see that happening anymore, as brilliant as a scientist may be. I think that the scientist, on average, has lost a lot of ground as a publicly respected figure.

    A few reasons I can think of:

    - Increasing public perception that science contradicts their religious beliefs (the whole evolution vs. creationism debate, and no, please don't start a religious discussion here).
    - Marketing that undermines the scientific establishment ("alternative" medicine, natural remedies and all the quackery surrounding them).
    - Erroneous ideas on environmental issues (the exaggeration and fear towards anything that even hints at "radioactive").
    - Tendency of "new science" to be too hard to understand for the average individual.
    - Perception of the science/scientist as being arrogant and claiming to be the only truth.

    Am I going too far? What are your thoughts on this?
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  3. Sep 29, 2007 #2


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    I'll add this:
    - absence of a scientific revolution (on an Einsteinean scale) in the second half of the 20th century.

    And (perhaps):
    - end of the cold war means each "camp" doesn't have to work as hard to prove superiority over the other.
  4. Sep 29, 2007 #3
    You should probably throw in the average Joe that looks at psuedoscience or science fiction and takes it at face value and thinks "Why not?" Like the Department of Defence funding a Star Trek-ish transportation program or the cold fusion story. And at the opposite end of the spectrum, people who look at science we are capable of and think "No way, that can't be right."
  5. Sep 29, 2007 #4


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    I have great respect for scientists they do not get enough recognition, i think the problem is they work behind closed doors and their names are only known to be associated with any thing by a few colleges.
    But then you have scientists who wright books that seem to ansewer all our questions,
    so their names are prominent for a few years.
  6. Sep 29, 2007 #5

    Chris Hillman

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    Has there been a notable loss of public respect for science? If so, why?

    PF is an international forum, so I must ask: you mean: in the US, correct?

    Er, no, you should be concerned. If anyone thinks that the fundamentalist attack on science (and the universities) in countries like the U.S. and Turkey excludes math or physics, you are terribly mistaken. Just think about creationist opposition to modern cosmology, the fact that ID tries to cloak itself in the mantle of ergodic theory and dynamical systems, and sponsorship by Discovery Institute (I am told) of Ph.D. students in geology, biology, and physics, to name just a few examples where semi-organized groups pursuing extra-scientific agendas either seek to destroy or to infiltrate and co-opt science.

    Just a general caution about trying to extrapolate from past history: Einstein was a genius, and instances of true genius are both rare and unique.

    Among the general public? I am not sure that is really the case, but many observers of American society in particular have pointed to increasing cynicism concerning all the institutions of society: the presidency, the Congress, the courts, large corporations (GM and Bell Tel were once genuinely admired and even respected, if you can believe that), journalism, etc., etc. I have seen various political commentators and historians ascribe this to fallout from growing appreciation of the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to Watergate and the Vietnam War (or even to Eisenhower's admission that he had lied to the public after the downing of the U-2 spy plane flown by Gary Powers), to race riots and the failure of The Great Society (President Johnson's domestic agenda, which included ending poverty and segregation/discrimination), to various journalism scandals and the rise of "shock radio" and "shock TV", to the gas shortages during Carter's presidency and the nearly averted bankrupty of New York City during Ford's presidency, to the collapse of the U.S. steel industry and near-collapse of the American automobile industry, to mortgage meltdown and the inability of young middle class Americans to purchase their own home, to the Simpson trial, and to myriad other incidents. I have seen commentators claim that (ironically, given that IMO the U.S. is actually a rather pacific nation) the last institution still generally admired by the American public is the military, but this too seems to be eroding, and the reasons are easy to find: the result of wars going badly---in all countries, in all periods--- has always been a loss of public respect for military institutions.

    Concerning the suggestion that the horror of the atomic bombings lessened public respect for physicists: I don't agree; AFAIK the original proponent of this notion was the German playwright Heiner Kipphardt; it was later picked up by Jonathan Schell and Freeman Dyson, but I know of no real evidence for believing this suggestion. More generally, if you look back farther in American history, you'll find widespread public dismay at much earlier political scandals, financial meltdowns, and military setbacks.

    Despite these cautionary remarks, I tend to agree with these commentators that there has been a loss of public respect for all institutions of society since roughly the nineteen seventies. I myself tend to feel that science is actually one of the institutions for which there is still considerable respect and admiration among a large fraction of the general public, but I agree with you that this residual respect is currently sorely threatened. (Even worse, I think it may be largely due to programs which have more to do with public entertainment than with genuine science, e.g. manned spaceflight--- I see here an analogy with state funding for gladiatorial combat in Roman times.) However, I think that you are putting the cart before the horse in your discussion of possible underlying causes for this phenomenon:

    Nothing new here; see the Huxley-Wilberforce debate (1860), the Scopes monkey trial (1925).

    If you ever get a chance to paw through a collection of old newspapers, do so. Quack remedies were once far more prevelant than they are today. (Recall that even in 1900 public health was extremely primitive.) I once spend an fascinating afternoon poring over newspapers published in New England in the 1830s. Pages and pages of ads for quack remedies.

    This is OT, but BTW, sensationalist journalism is nothing new either. Those old papers were also full of "police reporting" so gripping that I recall some of the stories to this day. The only difference was that the reporters tended to describe the most horrific details somewhat more obliquely than might be the case today.

    I have argued that the continued reliance upon humans as the agents of the global economy is idiotic. Humans violate every principle of manufacturing: non-interchangeable parts, extreme sensitivity to environmental toxins and to modest amounts of radiation, ludricously complex power supplies, the list is endless. It follows that there must be tremendous economic pressure to replace humans with manufactured citizens.

    You should read contemporary newspaper accounts of Eddington's verification of Einstein's light-bending formula.

    To offer a verifiable and hence superior band of truth? You should read what the voice of the people was screaming about Lavoisier when they lopped off his head.

    Anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism are in fact among the most venerable of American political traditions. See Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2007
  7. Sep 29, 2007 #6
    Yes, I should have been clearer about this. However, I must say that I have only lived in the U.S. for a few years, so I can't claim to have a real historical perspective.

    I do not doubt this, such tendencies are becoming rather visible as of late. I am concerned about the effects on science as a whole, but I have not reached the point of concern about the validity of my particular profession. That can easily change, though.

    Good point. You may be very right in saying that it is just part of a larger trend that involves a loss of respect towards the establishment on many levels.

    My point about radiation was more along the lines of nuclear energy (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, which were largely exaggerated) than about the bombs.

    Of course it's not new, but I had expectations that as the education of the average individual improved and the evidence and understanding for evolution increased, the debate would tend to favor science. This has not been the case as far as I can tell.

    Yes, but that was before the establishment and widespread availability of scientific medicine. Their use due to general ignorance of the causes for disease is a different matter than their use today.

    I'll see what I can find about these, thanks.
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2007
  8. Sep 29, 2007 #7
    Hmmm, both of these sound reasonable.
  9. Sep 29, 2007 #8
    A general caution about the word "unique": it means "one of a kind'. Having declared Einstein a genius, and asserting that genius is "unique" you are saying Einstein was the only genius there ever was.
  10. Sep 29, 2007 #9
    My perception of the current public perception of scientists is that people now commonly believe that the cutting edge of science is slowly proving that the world is basically magical. The word "quantum" is now synonymous with magic in the public view. I can't tell you how many times I've heard an argument in favor of the existence of life-after-death and various paranormal phenonmena backed up with the statement "Quantum physics has shown that..." and then some sensational claim is made that seems to lend scientific support for some essentially magical notion.
  11. Sep 29, 2007 #10

    Chris Hillman

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    Many things which you have observed about American life will be much more comprehensible after you read Hofstadter! The first in particular is widely acknowledged as a classic, and is short and written with enormous verve.

    There is a good reason why at least two physicists, Lawrence M. Krauss (Physics, Case Western Reserve) and Bob Park (Physics, University of Maryland, Em.), have been prominent in debunking ID, hydrinos, and dozens if not hundreds of other pseudoscientific claims.

    Sorry, that's what I thought you meant; the alleged reaction to the atomic bombings were just part of my summary of the case for the alleged general decline of respect for public institutions.

    Right, this is one of the most fascinating results of surveys by Pew etc. Actually, they found that persons with more higher education are indeed much more likely to agree with statements like "millions of years in the past, humans and apes shared a common ancestor", but what is astonishing is how many American Ph.D.s continue to hold "fundamentalist" beliefs which contradict very well-established scientific mainstream belief. You can find details at sites like the one I linked to.

    Agreed; I did briefly allude to that with my reference to the primitive state of public health programs in 1900. My take is that while modern medical science is far more effective than medical practice c. 1800, cancer patients do still hear "we can't cure you" and these people often turn to quacks for much the same reason that ill people turned to quacks before the advent of modern medicine: the need to feel some degree of control over one's fate, however counterfactual this belief might be.

    One possibility (likelihood unknown but presumed substantial) which you might think about: given the increasingly common occurence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria (ironically, of course, there is good reason to think that like Darwin's pigeon fanciers we have been unintentionally selecting for these strains by failing to ration our use of antibiotics), the prevalance of modern air travel, the increasing concentration of populations in urban areas, and so on, it is very hard to understand why there has been no true global pandemic since the swine flu pandemic of 1918. Many experts in public health feel that an avian-flu pandemic could rapidly kill off a large fraction of the current human population. Recall that swine-flu hit particularly hard young adults, who tend to consider their death as something lying in the remote future; young adults in 2008 are less prepared for an early death than were young adults in 1808 and would be particularly anguished by fear, I think, in the event of a global pandemic. Thus, I expect that the occurence of a global pandemic unstoppable by the medical profession would result in a parallel epidemic of quackery. It seems reasonable to expect that the health care professions and the inner cities would be decimated (unless doctors and nurses deserted their posts in large numbers), so the long-term demographic effects might be pretty drastic.

    I also predict an "epidemic" of conspiracy theories subsequent to a pandemic: even if the U.S. loses 12% of its population, people in poorer countries which have lost 19% will say that the pandemic was a CIA plot gone awry, poor Americans will say it was a deliberate attempt to eliminate poverty by killing the poor, and so on.
  12. Sep 29, 2007 #11

    Chris Hillman

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    Alleged Unicity of the Label "Unique"

    No, I was saying that Einstein was a unique phenomenon, as was Newton. It seems that people can't help trying to compare them, or trying to extrapolate to possible future developments from their careers. My cautionary remarks were intended to suggest that "the next Einstein" is a ridiculous and seriously misleading phrase, since the next genius of comparable stature and effect on intellectual history will be another unique phenomenon. One reason why is that IMO true genius is sufficiently rare that the historical contexts for two distinct instances of genius are rarely comparable.

    Or were you saying that having said that "1 Jan 1900 was the unique day bearing the date 1 Jan 1900", I am not allowed to say then say that "13 Jan 1987 was the unique day bearing the date 13 Jan 1987"? :wink:
  13. Sep 29, 2007 #12

    Chris Hillman

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    Agreed, and this raises another question for discussion: given that good science writing seems to be even rarer than good science, is bad science writing perhaps worse than none at all? If we must choose between miseducation and noneducation of the public about the frontiers of contemporary science, which is worse?

    I stress that I am not suggesting that public schools stop teaching schoolchildren about well-established science (no doubt in some watered-down and therefore misleading form). I am suggesting that it might be at least worth discussing the possibility that scientists should oppose attempts to explain to the general public current research in the frontiers of science, on the grounds that if one is doing XYZ it is better to say "I can't easily explain to you what I am doing" than to say "I am doing ABC".

    Before you object, I admit that this rule wouldn't enable schools to entirely evade trying to explain "quantum weirdnesses", since quantum mechanics has formed a core part of the scientific canon for some eight decades. But at least the proposed censorship might prevent things from getting even worse than they are already.

    Maybe I should add that unlike most things I post about, this is not something I have meditated upon previously, it is something which just occurred to me. Make of it what you will!
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2007
  14. Sep 29, 2007 #13
    You can say "Einstein's genius was unique." Or you can say "Each genius is unique." Your phrasing "...and instances of true genius are both rare and unique," encourages a misunderstanding of the word "unique" as synonymous with "special". It's not clear from the context you mean it as "one of a kind". Better would have been something like "...and instances of true genius are both rare and specific to the individual."
  15. Sep 29, 2007 #14

    Chris Hillman

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    Ever seen a performance of "Much Ado About Nothing"? I'll bet you didn't care for it, huh? :wink:

    OK, I suggest that those wishing to critique my writing start a PF poll in the :rolleyes: Criticism forum
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2007
  16. Sep 29, 2007 #15
    I think the problem is that there is a continuum of quantum physicists from very hard, realistic thinkers on one end to magical thinkers on the other. It is the more magically thinking quantuum physicists who are responsible for publishing these notions. See the section: "Consciousness causes collapse" in this Wikipedia article:


    This, and notions like it, are taken very seriously and literally by some people, and, being sensational, get widely disseminated, and constitute a springboard for:

  17. Sep 29, 2007 #16
    Since you are such a good writer, I thought you'd appreciate the risks of promoting the notion that "unique" is synonymous with "special". I think Shakespeare would have appreciated it.
  18. Sep 29, 2007 #17


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    Merriam Webster definition of unique

    2 a : being without a like or equal : UNEQUALED

    b : distinctively characteristic : PECULIAR

    3 : UNUSUAL <a very unique ball-point pen> <we were fairly unique, the sixty of us, in that there wasn't one good mixer in the bunch

    Chris' use of the word is correct.
  19. Sep 29, 2007 #18

    Chris Hillman

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    Groan, I know, I know. I try to avoid those people, but one could say that makes me part of the problem :frown: I counter that its up to the physicists to debunk that kind of thing; Robert Park of Maryland has made a good attempt, but I believe that more physicists should regard some level of involvement in debunking pseudoscience as a professional responsibility.
  20. Sep 29, 2007 #19

    Chris Hillman

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    Thanks, Evo :smile: Er, I hope we done with that now, if not, I repeat: someone start a poll asking for feedback on how many readers are concerned that they might "learn" incorrect definitions of words from my posts. Or how many want me to be kicked off PF, or whatever the issue is.
  21. Sep 29, 2007 #20
    Ugly, but true. I submit to the dictionary, but, in this case, I don't like it.
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