SCIENCE AND ITS CREDIBILITY, THE 1960S VS. TODAY
Science, according to John Ziman, past physicist, humanist, and author of Real Science, What it is, and What It Means (2000), states that “science is under attack.” In his book, he declares that:
“People are losing confidence in its powers. Pseudo-scientific beliefs thrive. Anti-science speakers win public debates. Industrial firms misuse technology. Legislators curb experiments. Governments slash research funding. Even fellow scholars are becoming skeptical of its claims.”
If science is under attack, has it always been? Or is this a relatively new problem? To answer this, specific periods in our recent history can be chosen and compared to determine if what Ziman claims has been true for both periods. An interesting period in particular was the 1960s, when substantial growth of science occurred and affected culture considerably.
Culture is often determined by science, and science must adhere to rules in order to remain credible and influence culture. The knowledge and technologies generated by science can be admirable or appalling and therefore must be regulated. But regulation has its impacts, and rules can result in harm to credibility and how the public views the sciences. The growth of science in the 1960s resulted in regulation and the restructuring of how the world viewed the sciences. Therefore I ask, how did the growth of the 1960s affect the credibility of science, and what can we do about it?
Revolutions in Thought
The 1960s did not just have an impact on America itself. Social upheaval was present in other countries like Britain, France, W. Germany, Japan, China, Mexico, and Canada. It was, as said best by Irwin and Debi Unger, editors and authors of The Times Were a Changin’, the Sixties Reader (1998) “a time when events went into overdrive.” Riots protesting for reform broke out all over the world. Feminism had its beginnings; police brutality was widely reported and common; hippies explored new realms of human disposition; Marxism was shunned and studied; Communism was feared; psychedelic drugs were all too common; personal and human rights were fought for fervently; nationalistic aspirations soared to the moon and back. And despite a constant fear of world destruction from looming perils of nuclear war, many positive and unique ideas arose and helped to shape the society we know today.
It is hard to ask about the 1960s without a receiving few moments of recollection, reminiscing, or chuckling in your response. The times then were certainly different than they are now. However, those times have past. Icons have faded, and cultures are disappearing; yet, ideas remain. Much of the technology present today was the brainchild of a sixties’ thinker. Revolutions in thought led to many social and technological changes and resulted in a mental and physical restructuring of our society. Many of these revolutions were a product of science.
“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesome returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” ~Mark Twain
Science is fascinating, but what exactly is science? Going back to Ziman’s book, science is said to be a social institution constantly generating knowledge. It is a uniquely human activity, a way of knowing, a process to reveal information, and a way of dealing with exigencies or problems that need to be solved. The idea of science itself is the idea of a very structured and objective process, much like the five cannons of rhetoric. Like them, science must encompass ideas of invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery in order to be effective.
Anne Druyan, co-founder and CEO of Cosmos Studios, Program Director of Cosmos 1 (the first solar sailing spacecraft mission), and widow of Emmy award winning author Carl Sagan talked about science in an interview with Discover Magazine. She claims science to be the “most revolutionary mechanism ever devised, applicable to absolutely everything,” and that “at any moment someone from any walk of life could come forward and be responsible for a complete revision of our view of everything.”
The scope of science covers almost all realms of our everyday lives, our histories, and our futures. Its size has “doubled steadily every 15 years. In a century this means a factor of 100. For every single scientific paper or for every single scientist in 1670, there were 100 in 1770, 10,000 in 1870 and 1,000,000 in 1970” (Ziman, 2000). Exponential growth and the resulting new realms generated by this growth divided science into many new paradigms (as discussed later). These days, the sciences are influential in the research of almost everything imaginable, from the studying of microbes found in all things, to time warp, and ping pong ball bounce. Too many of us are alive because of science to ignore it. Just try and imagine one object where science does not apply or where the sciences have not studied.
“Irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.” ~ Thomas Henry Huxley
What makes science credible? We have always maintained an interest in science because it has always been intellectually stimulating. We are surrounded by it, and it satisfies our interests. Dr. Ron Von Burg of Christopher Newport University received his doctorate studying public dimensions of science, says the public trusts science because 1) “it reveals information and helps us make sense of our world,” 2) “we believe in the collectivity of science and see it as an enterprise,” 3) “science presents reliable evidence we have used effectively,” and 4) “knowledge developed in science has many uses in different realms.” And to maintain this trust from the public, science must adhere to a few rules of its own.
Robert Merton, a philosopher, first investigated these rules and described how science works to stay within the norms of human principle. His studies resulted in the book The Sociology of Science (1973) and the acronym C.U.D.O.S., short for Communalism, Universalism, Disinterestedness, Originality, and Skepticism. All of these words work in perfect conjunction with one another and give scientists a list of ideals for which they should strive. Communalism expresses an openness to all individuals and how science works as a community; universalism symbolizes a discrimination free environment without language boundaries or other problems; disinterestedness describes an objectivity and humbleness towards different ideas; originality speaks of new discoveries and contributions; and skepticism states that all ideas must be tested before supported.
“Nothing in this world is to be feared… only understood.” ~ Marie Curie
The 1960s resulted in remarkable change. The nuclear age came about; man walked on the moon; the cold war cast a shadow of fear over the world; Rachel Carson published Silent Spring; Thomas S. Kuhn published his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; plate tectonics were discovered; computers became widely used; and many other useful changes were developed.
Thomas S. Kuhn’s, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962 drew heavily upon the thoughts of the scientific revolution. The scientific revolution began early in the 17th century, a period teeming with innovative ideas originating from the discoveries of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. Kuhn looked at persuasion in science through science’s different paradigms, or the relationships that different ideas have with one-another. His idea was that scientific changes become “normalized” through culture and suppress oppositional ideas. His work impacted scientists and nonscientists alike, suggesting that science proceeds not in information increments but instead through a source of irregular changes in how we view the world.
Silent Spring changed the world and is credited with launching a sixties social movement. The social movement was the environmental movement, and it advocated for the protection of our natural resources against pollution and destruction for purposes of sustainability. The book was well read and popular enough to spend several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, but not without lawsuits and attacks from both scientists and the chemical industry. It claimed that the chemical industries were responsible for manufacturing and distributing pesticides to kill insects, but misleading the public on the actual effects that these chemicals were having. Using current research at the time, Carson reported that DDT remained in the environment and was having persistently bad effects on all creatures, starting at the bottom of the food chain. As time went by, these chemicals were found to migrate up the food chain and result in high death rates among creatures as accumulation occurred within their bodies, especially in birds. An effective strategy used by Carson was the one of a spring without birds, a silent spring. Carson reported that when DDT and birds mix the DDT makes a bird’s eggshells thinner. If birds cannot lay eggs successfully many young birds die. For the first time large sections of the population rejected a technology of science and called for the regulation of scientific applications. The book ultimately resulted in the ban on the pesticide DDT and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
“Results rarely specify their causes unambiguously.” ~ Stephen Jay Gould
To find out precisely how the 1960s affected the credibility of science, three prominent scholars were asked for their input. These include Peter Barker, Professor of the History of Science at the University of Oklahoma; Michael A. Osborne, Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara; and Peter Galison, Pellegrino University Professor of the History of Science and Physics at Harvard University.
When asked about public response, two of the three, Dr. Barker and Dr. Galison, responded by stating that science has lost credibility or public support over the years since the sixties; and the third, Dr. Osborne, mentioned the fact that many realms of research like neither nanotechnology nor bioinformatics existed then, thus making it a tough question to answer simply. And correct he was: the leading sciences of the sixties were primarily physics, and physics dealing with space, rockets, nuclear power, biology, chemistry, and weaponry. It seems the decades have seen a shift in focus towards more biological sciences like the medical industry and genetics.
Peter Barker, author of numerous books and literature articles on science’s history, feels science is “clearly less” credible today than it was in the 1960s. First off, he believes that the “Cuban missile crisis, the development and deployment of ICBMs [(intercontinental ballistic missiles)] by the US and USSR, and the negotiation of an atmospheric test ban treaty, all aspects of the Cold War, made people aware of the dangers of nuclear weapons,” and “…although [people] continued to look to science for solutions to these problems,” the resulting effects on credibility were apparent.
The sixties were, as Dr. Osborne reveals, the first time real distrust of science came about. In his opinion, the “war in Viet Nam, the birth of the environmental movement and the ‘new ecology,’ the 1950s/1960s discovery of radiation fall out dangers, transformed the image of the physical scientist from one who worked for the ‘good,’ to one who might have gotten us into our various social quagmires.” Also, Dr. Galison feels that the early 1960s had the most “reflexive” support from the public. His assertion is that this was true before issues concerning the Vietnam War and the state of the environment exploded on the American scene, but support continued primarily because of the “technical-scientific successes of World War II and the early Cold War.”
The Loss of Credibility
So who or what is really responsible for the decline in the credibility for the sciences that we have seen since the sixties? A number of different things are. When Rush Holt, a Democrat Congressman from New Jersey with a doctorate degree in physics and holder of a patent on an solar-energy device, was asked by Seed Magazine about science as seen by the U.S. House of Representatives, he responded that it is too common for science to be misunderstood by the House, and that we will “never be able to protect the integrity of science through legislation.” He goes on to list issues like stem cells, technology, and global warming. When an issue like global warming is discussed by Congress, two members are taken from opposite sides of the issue to debate it. To him, this is absurd; however, it is the House’s “idea of [what] scientific knowledge [is].” Even if less than one percent of scientist’s believe in an issue, equal representation would given to these fringe scientists and this creates an uncertainty about the issue in public views.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit alliance of more than 100,000 individuals, recently released frightening reports on the integrity of science within governmental realms. Surveys distributed to government scientists and employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries division report that political interference is widespread and all too common. Another problem is that many individuals believe science is not for everyone, and that science deals with issues which many of us cannot understand. But its not, and a simple understanding goes a long way.
If the decline of scientific credibility began in the sixties, it has since snowballed. Fifties trust in science was high, with the war over, the economic boom of being one of the few cultures not impacted physically by the war’s destruction, and the prosperity and growth of the culture. What concerns us today about science has changed much from what concerned people of the sixties about science. No matter the reasons there have and always will be a basic “fear” of science in some respects. Bertrand Russell touched on this idea when he published Icarus, or the Future of Science in 1924, in it he states that he is “compelled to fear that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups rather than to make men happy.”
A fear of science and the possibility of “dominant groups” allude to the idea of science as an “Ivory Tower” (Ziman, 2002). A negative term applied towards academic elitism, the “Ivory Tower” term has its roots in Christian tradition and refers to noble purity. Often within public realms, science and/or scientists are thought of as being a disconnected entity above everything else, or as some high and mighty group delivering new ideas to be regarded as fact. Thomas Kuhn knew about the existence of a fear of science when he wrote his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and so he explained how science used methods of persuasion to overcome fear. Often though, fear remains and has a lasting presence visible through culture.
A Reflective Culture
Science is culture, and culture is often representative and reflective of science. To get a better feel for how the culture viewed the sciences during a specific period we can turn to cinema. Aylish Wood, author of Technoscience in Contemporary American Film, states, “…fictions of technoscience [can] reveal a sense of the complicated stories about the place of science and technology in the contemporary world.” The 1960s have a share of movies that where very reflective of the times. Often these films explore controversial issues, thought provoking topics, and their consequences while remaining a celebration of the human imagination.
In 1960, a Hungarian born filmmaker George Pal released The Time Machine. Based on the novel by the same name published by H.G. Wells in 1895, George, the main character, is an inventor, genius, awkward hero, time traveler, and a man ahead of his time. Determined to do something about his inability to fit in with the period he was born into, he builds a time machine and travels 800,000 years into the future. Bypassing years of war and transformation, he arrives to discover a ravaged planet with a human population divided into two different sects: the Eloi and Morlocks. The film screams symbolism. A man ahead of his time, war, divided populations, and technology, all are symbols of the sixties.
Another film, Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Atomic Bomb), was a 1964 satirical spoof about militaristic might and madness. Dr. Strangelove is primarily about a possessed American general convinced that the Soviet Union is poisoning the purity of his bodily fluids and thus mounts an attack on the Soviet Union. Nineteen sixty-eight saw the release of two more highly influential films: Planet of the Apes, directed by Franklin J Schaffner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick. Planet of the Apes effectively captures view of the future and confronts issues of racism. In it, space faring astronaut Colonel George Taylor crashes his small ship onto what he believes a strange new planet. Upon landing he is soon captured and held prisoner by a society of simians, ape like creatures strangely like us. Corrupt like the cultural times of the sixties, the simians have a society where humans represent a minority and are treated as mindless animals. The Colonel escapes his captors with the help of a few more liberal minded simians who assist him, but only to find the remains of the Statue of Liberty in post apocalyptic surroundings.
The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was reportedly made popular by “hippies high on acid [who] dug the psychedelic special effects scene at the end” (O’Ehley, 1997). But it wasn’t just hippies; people in general enjoyed the film, which is now ranked number one among the Top 100 Sci-Fi Movies of All Time by the Online Film Critics Society, an international association of professional film historians, scholars, and journalists who publish their reviews online. The film covers a spread of approximately 4 million years and is divided into 4 parts, first concerning evolution and final in dealing with possible destinations that these adaptations could lead to through exploration of space, time, and ingenuity.
What we see is a repetitive emphasis on the future, war, racism, and technology; all symbolic of the 1960s. Many movies of the last ten years or so can be used as similar examples, but emphasize different concerns culturally nonexistent in the 60s, such as genetics and global warming. Gattaca, released in 1997 and directed by Andrew Niccol, deals with issues of personal identity and genetic determinism. The film, based in the future, presents a version of society in which genetic engineering of in-vitro humans allows parents’ to determine gender, height, hair color, skin color, and the possible elimination of genetic diseases. The result is a society of lower class beings conceived through traditional sexual reproduction and an upper class of superior genetically designed humans. Drawing on concerns over different technological developments using genetics, the movie creates a picture of the possible consequences that such technologies could have on society.
The Day After Tomorrow is a global disaster film based on global warming concerns. Directed by Roland Emmerich and released in 2004 the movie won the Best Science Fiction Film Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. The Day After Tomorrow is not without its critics and has been called laughable and excessive but conveys concerns about global warming. In addition, among others, Jurassic Park, a Steven Spielberg film expresses a concern for the influences that corporations can have on science.
“To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” ~ Copernicus
Singer Billy Joel reflects in a song about the 60s, “We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning, since the worlds been turnin’,” and in the same way, science has always been “under attack” and always will be. What the sixties gave us still marvels us, and between the three experts interviewed, science was said to be more credible and trusted by the public in the 1960s than it is now. The period was a social environment where apparently the distrust of science became ever present, but still the general view of the sciences was favorable. As Dr. Osborne tells us, even though many criticized federal monies going toward such expensive projects, we had men on the moon at the end of the decade and “there was much to cheer about.” Dr. Galison clearly credits these times with the exploration that we still see today through unmanned Martian robots and the fascination we have with their successes.
What have the sixties taught us about fixing this credibility issue? First, dishonesty dooms us to perpetual irresponsibility, as apparent through era films which show a fascination toward science but a fear of scientific application. Second, fear leads to distrust. This was apparent from the Cold War’s impact on the public, when nuclear warheads created by science were used by conflicting governments to instill fear of destruction in one-another as protection from fear of destruction. And thirdly, manipulation ends when it meets knowledge; uniformed decisions create irrational actions as shown by Rachel Carson in that a regulation of scientific findings is not only good but also necessary.
Science has come a long way since the sixties in that the regulation of scientific findings and their application is now collectively accepted. However, this results in much more transparency and therefore criticisms toward science, which are likely in-part responsible for the lower credibility of current science. People of the sixties were also closer to changes and how they affected or influenced them versus today we accept their presence. If only a few understand what science and technology truly are and the processes they involve, then science may be used for reasons other than educated decisions.
I believe scientists can and will equal sixties credibility once again if they are able effectively capture the imaginations of the nation, especially the youth. Children of the 60s had the space race to marvel them; children of today have motor scooters and cell phones. A “wow” moment is a common moment among research scientists, but often very few of the “wow” moments are arranged verbally so children can understand their significance. Applicable is a quote by Abdus Salam who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 and published over 250 papers on physics and educational policies for developing countries like Pakistan: “Scientific thought is the common heritage of mankind.” Understanding what he was saying, and putting it to use can benefit us all.
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