Our nation, nay, our world, needs a new kind of hero.
Although the aliens are still keeping a low profile amongst us, and the robot armies have yet to attack, we still face a large number of problems.
Global warming. Bioweapons. Stem Cells. Cloning. Pollution and waste. Agricultural sustainability and genetics. National defense. Affordable HDTVs. Financial collapse. Talking apes.
And of course everyone’s talking about green energy — which I hope means we’re all going to get Green Lantern rings, because that would be way cool. But even if it doesn’t, it still sounds pretty sciencey to me.
In short, folks, we need scientist heroes in our media to inspire the Einsteins (or at least the Neil deGrasse Tysons) of tomorrow, and to make science literacy cool for everyone.
In the 1950s, during that golden age of angst over atomic energy and communism (as opposed to global warming and terrorism), we saw a number of classic science fiction movies with scientist heroes. And no, I don’t mean as a sidekick or minor team member. I mean the man with the plan, the lady who gets paidy.
In fact, they even Unmake them. War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise replaced a scientist hero with an average Joe Sixpack.
But its time to put the sexy back in science. And no, I don’t mean scantily clad lab assistants.
Why We Need to Be More Scientifical
Just as an indication of how badly America is in need of a science image makeover, consider that the US was ranked 29th in Science and Math education behind countries like the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Liechtenstein. And before you ask, yes, Liechtenstein is a real nation, it is not a Marvel Universe invention.
And adult scientific literacy isn’t doing so well either. A recent study found, for example, that one in five American adults think that the Sun revolves around the Earth.
Seriously. And only Turkey was found to have lower public acceptance of evolution than the United States, attributed to the dominance of Fundamentalist religions in our two nations.
In fact, one of our US vice presidential candidates, a potential leader of our nation, reportedly believes that man walked beside dinosaurs on Earth just after it was created a mere 6,000 years ago, and that priests who speak in tongues can put a shield against witchcraft around you.
Now, equally low adult scientific literacy rates were found in Europe and Japan, so we are not alone. But that is not exactly reassuring.
I want all people of all nations to be equally well educated and informed. But, living in America, I do have a vested interest in our nation not going to crap — you know, worse than it is.
So beyond inspiring new scientists, why should non-scientists be science literate?
For one, it makes a smarter, more flexible workforce. You can adapt better to new jobs and new technologies, and attract employers in need of skilled labor.
Scientific literacy also means an electorate who can make better informed decisions on subjects ranging from stem cell research to transportation to natural resource management.
And scientific literacy means smarter consumers, better able to evaluate marketing claims and understand the dangers of credit consumerism.
How Science Fiction Will Save Us All
Show of hands – who wants to retire to their grandchildren’s sub-prime one-room hovel in the decayed urban warzone that was once America?
Or perhaps roam the sweltering wasteland looking for gasoline while the mutants hunt you down?
Yeah, thought so.
Then let’s inspire some smart folks to get scientifical and create smart solutions to our stupid problems.
But most “science” shows, including new ones like Fringe, too often play up the dangers of science and evil scientists, rather than the positives.
So come on, how about we have a television show called American Scientist? Think razzle-dazzle science fair!
Paula: “I think your attempt at bringing trepanning into the 21st century was very admirable, I really like where your heart was at. It was just slightly, well … better luck next time.”
Randy Jackson: “Wow dawg! That portable time machine was da bomb. I think it is going to be a real tough choice for voters between that and my girl Suzie’s instant cheese maker.”
Colin: “My god! I haven’t seen a hypothesis that weak since ‘Mayhap nuts make squirrels brown’.”
And of course, we need a return to the glory days of scientist heroes in movies. Coming soon we have The Day the Earth Stood Still, remade with Keanu Reeves. Dare I hope that this movie will retain the themes of reason and rationality being key to our survival, and scientists being our heroes? Oh, dare I?
They are also remaking Fantastic Voyage, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, both science fiction classics.
When creating these scientist heroes in the media, it will also be important to make them racially and ethnically diverse — not only to reflect simple reality, but also to provide heroes to those who need them the most.
Because in those education evaluations that the US failed so badly, American Black and Hispanic students scored well below Caucasians on average. This is not due to any mythical inferiority, of course, but reflects factors such as the unequal and sad state of schools in poorer minority-heavy neighborhoods.
And who better to write scientist characters than scientists? That’s what the Pentagon thought, anyway. As reported in a 2007 USA Today article, in addition to generally pushing for more scientists characters in film, they were actually sponsoring screenwriting classes for scientists. Why? Well, you can’t have foreign scientists working on sensitive US defense technology, and there is a growing shortage of physicists and engineers in America.
So hey, any of you science fiction writers out there, maybe you can get the Pentagon to back your television or movie script, or the film rights to your novel. I hear they’ll still get plenty of funding, no matter which way our economy goes.
Of course, the best thing you could do is become a scientist yourself.
But failing that, be sure when you write your next story or script to show how the different levels of science literacy affects the options and choices of your characters. And consider writing a scientist hero who uses reason and scientific method to triumph over badness and stoopid evil.
You might just help save the world.