Could “science” have morphed into a word that divides us?

The previous LOTRW post dealt with the struggles of scientists – of every stripe – to go beyond the boundaries of their discipline and apply their science to societal benefit. Wherever we turn, we see societal needs. We know our most recent research advances could make the world a better place. But how to accomplish this transition? A critical challenge!

Part of the problem is that our scientific training, by and large, is silent on how to put science to practical use. The observations, the equations, the modeling, the statistical analysis, offer no guidance. But the problem goes deeper. It hurts to say this, but the start, the very beginning, of the problem may be that we scientists self-identify as such. Today, especially here in America, the words “science” and “scientists” are no longer words of inclusion, but rather labels that divide. Our scientist-tribe’s brand has been tarnished.

A vignette suggests a possible origin – a time, and an event – for this.

Perhaps five or ten years ago (don’t remember the exact date), the Committee for Economic Development was rolling out the latest in their continuing series of studies on STEM education at a luncheon. Then-Congressman Rush Holt was the featured speaker. Can’t quote him verbatim but what he said on that occasion was that Sputnik, though widely credited with spurring American science,  had proved in fact to be a disaster for science education in the United States. He said this 1957 Cold-War Russian accomplishment triggered a lot of American soul-searching about the state of science education in public schools. Sure enough, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and other initiatives soon strengthened science education (all well and good), but – targeted primarily a small minority who were judged to have aptitude or enthusiasm for scientific work. This had the unintended consequence of creating an elite (at least as scientists see it). At the same time it engendered today’s generally held idea that it is okay for the vast majority of Americans to not be well versed in science, or even interested in it. This was not the case, Congressman Holt said, for other disciplines – say, being unable to read and write.


We see this every day. Someone who doesn’t know us well asks us what we think about climate change, and we start out innocently enough with some statement like “well, the science says…” If we’re sensitive, open to the cues provided by facial expressions or body language, we’ll notice that a fraction – maybe a large fraction – of our hearers shut down at that point, or get defensive. The curious may be interested in what we have to say next, but those who’d just seconds earlier had been wanting to share some thought or insight of their own have become hesitant, tentative. They may decide to clam up, or to brace themselves for some critique. They feel exactly how I feel if/when a football player comes up to me and says, however playfully, let’s arm wrestle.

Our reputation precedes us. The larger society may be fascinated by science (a sign of mental health!) but find scientists off-putting. That’s because in our science world, progress is made through continual criticism of claims. It’s as if we misheard Descartes to say I critique; therefore I am.

So our hearers have to gauge: does my credential in this area match those of this scientist? If they don’t, he/she will not listen to what I have to say on this subject. I haven’t “paid my dues” – done the lit review or taken the observations, or developed and run the models.

This sense of discipline is captured by definitions. Here’s a sample:


– a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws:

– the mathematical sciences.

– systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.

– any of the branches of natural or physical science.

Systematic. Mathematical. Experimentation. Each of these words characterizing science is a barrier separating true scientists from others. This threesome isn’t in your background? Then, in the presence of a scientist, talking about science, safer to keep your mouth shut. Maybe, just maybe, venture a question. But even that poses a risk. We worry: if the question isn’t properly constructed, I might be diminished in this scientist’s eyes. (By the way, even scientists, maybe especially scientists, also experience this. When I’m with a particle-physicist, or biochemist, or sociologist, I’m cautious, self-protective.)

If this is the nature of individual transactions, especial our initial ones, little wonder that societal uptake of science is less than ideal.

Two closing points. First: you may think this concern too harsh, or even unwarranted – especially if you yourself are a scientist. Fair enough. But as we engage others, it’s not what we think about ourselves and how we come across, but the way they actually view us that matters most. I confess, my own thinking here is both rudimentary and emotional; your own view, knowledge – especially any of your social science – would be most welcome.

Second, you might reasonably ask: okay, Bill, what’s your suggestion, or your better idea?

It turns out I have one. More focus on the labels such as real, reality, realistic.

These are inclusive words. We all feel we’re realistic, and that our thinking is reality based. We’re comfortable with those ideas. Very few of us consciously or consistently think of ourselves as delusional.

Compare the definitions:


 – true; not merely ostensible, nominal, or apparent

– existing or occurring as fact; actual rather than imaginary, ideal, or fictitious

– being an actual thing; having objective existence; not imaginary


– the state or quality of being real.

– resemblance to what is real.

– a real thing or fact.

Whatever our walk of life, whatever our journey, we readily and comfortably see ourselves in the reality-based camp.

We began with a vignette – let’s close with one. When considering the title for this blog – and later the book by the same name – I found myself at a time when the words climate change and climate science were degrading into partisan labels. I wanted some way to discuss those and related topics without that baggage. Part of that was moving to the word real.

We’re living (inclusively!) on the real world.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Could “science” have morphed into a word that divides us?

  1. Rachel Licker says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and appreciate this perspective, Bill. Thank you!

  2. I’m afraid the problem pre-dated Sputnik. C. P. Snow hit it head-on in his “Two Cultures” lecture in 1956, but even this was presaged by the exchanges between Matthew Arnold and T H Huxley in the 19th century. A possible solution to the dilemma lies in creating a third culture – a cohort literate in science AND imbued with an appreciation of our culture and cultural heritage.

  3. Jud Stailey says:

    Bill–interesting post. Two thoughts. First, why do we react defensively about knowledge? Those of us who’ve toed the line in Hopkinton on Patriot’s day do not react this way toward those at the front who get to Boston about twice as fast as we do. We’d love to talk with them, and they would respect our lesser talents and encourage our efforts. This is pretty typical in athletics. Why should knowledge (especially in technical areas) be different? Is it perhaps because in today’s world political (driven by economic and social) belief takes precedence in determining what people think? Or is it some reflection of insecurity? Secondly, I’m not sure how to apply your suggestions. I admit to being one of those “scientists.” When someone discovers that I’m a meteorologist and asks whether I believe in climate change, my stock answer is: “Belief is for things like God. Science is a process, and I trust that process.” I see how that could be off-putting for someone who’s insecure about his science chops, but I’m not sure that saying “let’s get real here” would be much better.

    Again, interesting post. Lots to think about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *