Can science be made popular?

No, not Popular Science!

I’ve had the Cosmos marathon on all day. I saw the series when it was first broadcast, and I found it very inspiring. As I recall, the intention of Cosmos was to make science popular and accessible to the general public.

In the last decade it seems to me that people in this country have become more anti-science. Sagan mentioned climate in his series, but AGW is a controversial subject. School boards (you know, the people who are supposed to educate kids) have tried to dismiss evolution as ‘just a theory’ and promote creation ‘science’ as something credible. I’ve run into people who actually believe the Earth is 6,000 years old. Peudoscience abounds.

And yet we have The Science Channel and The Discovery Channel. Sure, they have ‘oogah-boogah’ shows about UFOs and ghosts and other such claptrap. In the '70s there was In Search Of and Sasquatch was allegedly sighted with frequency. But even so people seemed more amenable to science back then than they are now. And there are* actual science shows on the cable channels I mentioned.

But I was born in, and grew up in, the Space Age. I was always interested in aviation and space, so I saw the strides we were making. I watched The Undersea World Of Jacques Cousteau religiously whenever it came on, so I learned a bit about oceanography. In kindergarten I saw how South America and Africa looked like they’d fit together and surmised that they must have been together at some point and drifted apart. When I was six or seven I was interested in fossils, and I paid attention to the lessons on evolution. I tried to imagine the Big Bang. I wanted to know the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of things. Still do. That’s why I like this board. So during my formative years I was interested in science. Cosmos blew me away, since it brought so many things together clearly and concisely. (And I liked the music too.) The Day The Universe Changed showed scientific advances in a very funny and entertaining way.

Nowadays the attitude of people in general seems to be ‘Don’t bother me with facts!’ OK, maybe it’s because we have the Internet and I’m exposed to more people for home science equals blasphemy. But I try to be optimistic.

How can the sciences be made popular again? How do ‘we’ get people interested?

In the interest of a disciplined, rigorous scientific exploration of this problem, ahem, cite?

Ancedotes about television shows or how you perceive the general attitude of the nation towards science isn’t, in my view, a convincing arguement for a crisis of the position of science in our culture.

I think you may also find this interesting:

This is IMHO. And I did say ‘it seems to me’. In any case I did give examples.

I think that there is an anti-intellectualism in the US that fluxuates from time to time, but is always there. This attitude, IMHO, will keep science from being truly popular in the US. If you look at characters in American TV and movie, the ones who are intelligent and passionate about any field of study are invariably portrayed as mal-adjusted geeks.

Some school boards. They get press because they aren’t that common. It’s not like every school board in the US is trying to promote creation science.

Science is very popular, within certain of us subgroups.

Shows that popularize science often seem to do it by showing all the fun things they can that are peripheral to the science - pretty pictures, scientist-as-regular-person, amusing historical asides, and so on. It seems a shame - like book stores adding cafes and music and movie sales because, I guess, books aren’t reason enough to go to a store.

“American Nerd - The Story of My People” is a very pleasant book that, along with much else, discusses what amount to kinds of anti-intellectualism in the USA.

I used to worry about this.
Then I realized that it helps to keep salaries high and jobs available for those of use who actually like science.
I really don’t mind having my burgers flipped by someone who doesn’t like science.

Since there are so many more science-oriented shows on television now, I’d personally take that as indication that science is fairly popular. I mean, they wouldn’t show them if there weren’t an audience, right? It’s all about the $$$, which they don’t get, if the sponsors don’t think there’s enough people watching the shows.

TLC and TDC are littered with woo-woo, but The Science Channel proper, for now at least, is refreshingly free of bullshit. (Yes, it’s one of a mere handful of entries in my TiVo Faves, why do you ask?)

I think science used to be much more popular. It was big in the 1950s, then Sputnik and the Space Race and the Physical Science Study Committee conspired to really push science (“Space Babies” is what Pepper Mill calls thosde of us growing up back then). You used to have a LOT of popular science in the bookstores. Mentor and Collier and other book companies put out a lot of pop science books aimed at the Common Man – Isaac Asimov;s Guide to Science/The Brain/Electricity/Whatever and books on Crystal Growing or Waves or Atomic Energy or Static Electricity, all of them priced at the typical paperback level and sold at newsstands, department stores, and even bookshops. I’ve got a lot of these (it’s not all outdated), and I don’t see anything similar to them today. I can go into a big Book Store like Barnes and Noble or Borders or whatever, and i can find science books, but they’re rarely general, they often have some humanistic “hook”, and they’re not cheap.

We still have magazines like Scirentific American and American Scientist and New Scientist (try finding the last two at your magazine stand, though).
Museums try. There are occasional TV shows like Cosmos or Connections or Day the Universe Changed (and there’s always Nova). But i’m afraid a lot of cable TV “science” is pretty questionable stuff. (Although we have things like Mythbusters and recent imitators).
Science certainly CAN be made popular. It has in the past, and several institutions still do (museums, magazines, and these TV series), but there’s a lot of competition. And, sadly, a lot of stupid out there.

Well, the last time we have a big science (space, at least) race, it was 'cause the Soviets beat us to orbit (a couple of times).

The time before that, it was because a few cadres of fanatics tried to take over Eurasia—one of 'em ended up as a nuclear proving ground, before becoming a peaceful, industrious bastion of art and technology for the free world. The other one did the initial R&D for the next few decades of the rest of the world’s military development, before doing a bad Wagner swan song. Maybe not a bad trade, aside from the incalculable human loss.

So to top those, and to provide the impetus to get us all off our seat cushions, I’d guess…China and the fanatical Islamic states would have to form an alliance, and then try to invade Mars.

Failing that…Urkel was a nerd, and he was really cool and popular, right? Well, we maybe we just need another Urkel. A better Urkel. Smarter. More charismatic. Funnier. Perhaps more than one. Gentlemen, we need a meganekkono, make that…a GIGAnekko!

I’ll see what I can arrange.

Science was “popular,” in the sense that the uninformed public felt good about it, back when it looked like Science was going to give us the solutions to all our problems. We had the atom bomb, we got television, we were cornering smallpox, our skyscrapers stretched to the heavens, we could talk long distance to nearly everywhere, penicillin was a miracle, we were sending rockets and astronauts into space, manufactured foods were filling the supermarkets, and on and on and on. As such, the man in the street thought science was just dandy.

This does not mean the man in the street had any better grasp on what science actually was than he does today. Rather, before the litany of shortfalls and failures that began to pile up (no cure for cancer, nuclear proliferation, pollution as a side effect of industrialization, ad nauseum; and where’s our flying cars goddammit), the man in the street had a nebulously positive feeling for what our scientists had wrought. Then, as progress stalled, and complexities arose, that feeling was tempered, and eventually the pendulum swung back the other direction.

But, again, this doesn’t mean the man in the street has any better or worse understanding of science now than he did then. It’s an irrational perception, held almost without thought. By any objective measure, scientific knowledge and expertise is hugely superior to what we had in the modernist era, but the man in the street doesn’t know any of that. As long as we have no cure for AIDS, and we can’t predict earthquakes, and there’s no anti-gravity or invisibility belts, and tinpot banana-republic tyrants are getting their hands on scary chemical weaponry, Science is “failing.”

Popularity != comprehension.

For some reason your post reminded me of this:

Read my post again. You either didn’t understand it, or you’re off on a completely different topic.

I think people, by and large, DID understand science better then. It helped that there wasn’t as muc of it, and it was simpler, and you really could do tabletop experiments. The books would tell you how.

Nowadays you can’t get a decent chemistry kit. We’re more protective about even the science we’ll let kids do, because we found out that things are more dangerous (MY chemistry books had experiments with carbon tetrachloride, potassium dichromate, and stearic acid. Try getting those today), but also because people worry about lawsuits, and probably national security (I used to buy chemicals at my local auto parts store. Now nobody sells them. You used to be able to get radioactive sources from Gilbert Science and from the US Government!).

But there’s nothing classified about, say, static electricity. A,D. Moore’s book on this was a classic, and you could buy it for under $1. Asimov’s guides to The Brain and The Bloodstream had some pretty sophisticated biology and biochem. Try and find those at your local newsstand today. And none of these would be shunned by distrust in science today.

I advocate a more dangerous route to popularize science.

Blow stuff up. Destroy stuff. Big stuff, and show how science lets you get creative about how you can destroy things without going to jail.

Make science appeal to bad boys and sluts.

Isn’t that what YouTube is for?

Yeah, I didn’t reply directly so much as jump off onto my own tangent.

On that, I must disagree.

Then there is hope!

Maybe the original comment is facetious, but as someone who does scientific educational outreach, I think the problem isn’t getting people interested in explosions and light shows as much as getting them interested in critical thinking - whether applied to the natural world (= science), the man-made world (=engineering), or the world of ideas (= philosophy).

The older I get, the more I realize the majority of the people in the world just want to be told what to do and think. I don’t know how to get them motivated to be otherwise.

Unfortunately, young people would use critical thinking skills to get away with shit. If we COULD motivate them, we would just be creating a generation of super villains.