Science in the Movies and Real Life

In the current smash hit, The Martian, Matt Damon plays a NASA botanist who is stranded and has to find a way to survive on Mars using his scientific skills, aided by the inventiveness of earth-bound rocket scientists and other experts. In addition to its engaging story and cinematography, The Martian pays homage to the power of science to conceive of grand visions and solve seeming insurmountable problems.

Science — and scientists — in real life often get much less respect. In the world outside the multiplex, they are often subjected to criticism or outright disbelief. While science skeptics are rarely a majority of Americans, they attract attention and wield cultural and political influence well beyond their numbers. On climate change, only fifty percent of the public believes it is caused by human activity (compared to 87 percent of scientists). Combined with the nine percent who believe it does not exist, they have helped stymie accepting responsibility to address the problem. On evolution, only 65 percent believe that humans have evolved over time (compared to 98 percent of scientists), and the 33 percent who believe humans have always existed in their present form claim that evolution is “just one theory,” a profound misinterpretation of what a theory means in science. In regard to vaccinations, 24 percent of Americans believe they are a likely cause of autism. Their impact results in only 68 percent of the public saying that vaccinations should be required (compared to 86 percent of scientists), threatening not only the health of their children but of others as well. On some issues, scientists are even barred from applying their methods, such as the long-standing Congressional opposition to funding for research on the causes of gun violence.

How can we explain this disconnect —> Read More