Science on the Web (1)

[April 23, 2011] 

At a time when scientific literacy in the United States is in crisis and the very definition of scientific inquiry has been under fire so recently by our national government, it seems worthwhile to see how science is depicted and disseminated online.

Did I say “disseminated?” That’s a gross exaggeration. Though Web browsers give us access to vast store houses of scientific information, they don’t deliver it in a consistent, coherent form. They merely expose us to a random array of factoids—useful, trivial, accurate, deceptive, fanciful and false.

Add to that the image of science proliferated by stock art companies, and it’s easy to see how remote this very human activity seems to our collective consciousness. With their atmosphere of sullen solemnity, these images tell us “Science, is for brainiacs only.”

Terminology fatigue.
Complicating matters, the word “science” has outlived its usefulness. While the separate disciplines we understand as science are constantly converging, Medicine, for example is as different from Astrophysics as it is from Mechanical Engineering.

We speak of theoretical science, applied science, social science and I suspect the blanket applicability of the term is a major part of the problem. With so many fields lumped under one term, it’s easy to see why understanding Science can seem an insurmountable task.

The delusion of futility.
What’s more, the way the American film industry romanticizes the concept of Genius feeds directly into our penchant for all or nothing thinking.

“You’d have to be a genius to understand that stuff,” is a constant refrain in our culture of Winners and Losers—in which studying Biology is futile unless you have a shot at a Nobel prize.

So instead of valuing the skills and talents each of us possess, we throw in the towel early on and give up the pursuit of knowledge. Now more than ever, “I don’t have the head for that,” is the self-excusing mantra of the terminally unmotivated American.

Selling ourselves stupid.
And as I see it, nothing spells the demise of our values more clearly than one persistent determinist view of the human condition: The idea that our accomplishments depend solely on our genetic inheritance. Ironically, only someone with actual knowledge of genetics, educational theory and brain development would be in a position to know the impact of our genes on our potential for achievement.

Yet every day, people too intimidated to pick up a book borrow scientific terminology to assign themselves inferior intellectual status. They’re smart enough, in other words, to build a complex rationale for why they’re too stupid to learn.

As with any societal problem, this one is much easier to describe than it is to solve. What appears as one problem from one angle, appears as a cluster of problems from another. On one hand, no single entity owns digital space, so there’s no way to regulate how science is presented online. 

On the other, a tightly regulated Internet would be a pale reflection of its current magnificent multiplicity. Yet to the extent that digital space perpetuates the myth of Science as an aloof, inaccessible pursuit, something must be done. Now that more Americans turn to digital sources for news, information and education than to any other medium, the impact of Web content on our perception of Science cannot be discounted.

A call for science advocacy.
What’s needed is a consortium to help monitor and manage how scientific topics are discussed in digital space. So when a president casually asserts that creationism is a valid scientific theory, or a governor foolishly insists that a brain dead woman is alive, there will be a recognizable voice of reason to counter these manipulative arguments. Manipulative, that is, because lurking behind them is a truckload of revisionist legislation.

At the moment, there’s no organization to fulfill this role. Ultimately, the absence of a sustainable science advocacy organization could be our undoing. The fact that, in recent years, we’ve seen US senators hostile to science rise to the heights of power should be a wakeup call for anyone sitting on the sidelines.

Whatever the solution, one thing is abundantly clear: It’s time for the truth to develop a better marketing strategy. Those who hoped a new administration would ring in a new era are sadly disappointed. If we want to take our culture back from liars, manipulators and the stubbornly ignorant, we’ll have to do it ourselves.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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