Why Do Good People Resent Science? (What's Wonder, Not Politics, Got To Do With It?)

Most Americans really appreciate science, yet many also have reservations about it, complex feelings that go well beyond the well-known protests on the left and right against evolution, vaccines, GMOs, and so on.  We'll never understand these complicated, ambivalent attitudes toward science if we just settle for the usual wagging of fingers, either/or formulations, and ritualistic laments about the ignorance of the other side. Instead, I want to look at a less discussed feature, the state of wonder in America, and see what it has to do with some of these reservations about science.

To start, here are some survey figures that put the issue in perspective. According to one of the best public-opinion surveys, about 90% of Americans say that science “is essential for improving the quality of human lives," yet in that same survey 50% of respondents say that science has “created as many problems for society as it has solutions” (VCU Survey). That's astounding: half the country thinks that science is creating problems. You can't just dismiss half the population as a fringe group of hard-core Creationists or New Agers who reject science out of hand. In fact, many of these same people also feel that science is improving the quality of life, so clearly there’s a complex ambivalence here, one that transcends religion, politics, class, and education. It also transcends the current moment, which is why virtually the same survey results have been obtained for years.

To understand current attitudes toward science that can only be flagged by quantitative surveys, we have to look below the surface and go back in time. In particular, I suggest looking at images of science in enduringly popular blockbuster movies, since the ones that stand the test of time usually play upon some sort of hidden, major cultural tension or ambivalence. With that in mind, I want to say a few things about Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the marine biologist in Jaws.

The Jaws movie is a good test case because it has been extremely popular ever since it came out in 1975, and Hooper is an interesting, complex character. Rather than a twisted scientist in the mold of Dr. Strangelove, Hooper is portrayed as an ethical and likable person, using his knowledge to save the island of Amity. Best of all for our purposes, Hooper is a scientist filled with a sense of wonder, as you can tell from the way he's astounded by "Jaws" and admiringly refers to sharks as “a miracle of evolution.” So how could anyone resent a scientist like Hooper?

The first clue is Hooper’s obsession with measurement. He’s constantly trying to measure the exact physical dimensions of the sharks in the film, talking about bite radiuses, proportions, and scale. These remarks might seem trivial until you remember that Hooper doesn’t just study sharks, he also kills them. He fully embraces the mission to destroy “Jaws," and, in the end, it’s his air tank that gets the job done. What does that death symbolize, more broadly?

I argue that Hooper embodies a popular view of scientists as killers of mystery. In this view, scientists kill off our sense of wonder and awe at the unexplained. Nothing gets spared from science's relentless measurements and thorough investigations and explanations. The more science has progressed, the more people have longed for mysteries and enigmas, a few last holdouts from science's crushing dominance, like miracle cures, "lost tribes," and, yes, sharks in the deep sea, one of the enduring mysteries of the world. The scientists aren't necessarily bad people, they're just too good at what they do. People appreciate their discoveries and technologies, but wish they would leave more to the imagination. It's like the paparazzi: people want them to uncover secrets, but then resent them when they do. In this way, Hooper fits right into the longstanding stereotype of the “Inhuman Scientist.”

If you’re like most people who identify with the scientists, you will probably object that science actually increases wonder by opening up new questions for investigation. Personally, I agree, and, since you have sought out and read this analysis, I’m guessing you do, too. That’s fine, we’re people too, but as hard as it is, we need to recognize that millions of people don’t view science the same way. In fact, in certain unguarded moments, like while walking in the woods or listening to a Bach concerto or throwing a coin in a fountain and making a wish, you, too, might be holding onto some cherished mystery, a last refuge from science. You might even indulge the feeling that those mysteries touch the deepest parts of your soul.

Whatever it takes, I just hope more people will recognize that a longing for wonder factors into reservations about science. Maybe doing so will create more understanding of others and ourselves.

That’s probably the biggest difference between today and 1975. Back in the 70s, when Jaws first came out, it was still possible to imagine a fisherman, scientist, and police chief riding in the same boat, in pursuit of the same goal, despite their differences. These days, they’d probably get separate boats and cut each other off in the water. When we can no longer recognize each other’s humanity and mutual interest in knowledge and mystery, we’re really in trouble.  

More Reading:
If you want a free, online copy of the book chapter (with bibliographic references) that this post distills, go to Academia.edu

For a shorter, complementary interpretation of the final shark explosion in Jaws as symbolic of the  Hiroshima bomb, see my post on WWII. Joining these two posts, I would say Hooper is like Oppenheimer and the other scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, fascinated with the scientific challenge of creating the atomic bomb, but not fully grasping the grisly deaths it would unleash. 

In terms of awe and magic, you might also like my essay on throwing coins in fountains.

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