Imagine yourself at one of those fashionable dinner parties you go to now and then—you know, the kind where everybody has retro-chic eyeglasses and au courant haircuts, and the food isn’t just vegetarian but organic.
You make the mistake of mentioning your headache and the woman on your left offers you some capsules from the health food store. Here is your side of the ensuing conversation:
“Oh, thanks, but you know I only take medications that have been subjected to rigorous double-blind testing… Really? Well, maybe, but I still kind of prefer science… Yup, I know. But hey, maybe all those chemicals are somehow good for us—maybe that’s why life expectancy goes up every year! Ha ha. Oh, gee, sorry. My wife thought it was funny, and she actually had cancer… What? Sure, some things are sacred, but… Gosh, I’m not sure I ever feel ‘spiritual.’ How will I know it when I do? Is it like sneezing?”
Pity the poor rationalist in polite company. Inevitably, diet has come up, and if the party is in Southern California, chances are somebody was “detoxifying.” But to speak out against the anti-scientific orthodoxy that prevails among large segments of the educated class is to paint a stripe down your back and make yourself the skunk at the garden party.
Food is at the center of elites’ anxieties about science and modernity, yet the truth is that it has become a scapegoat, or perhaps I should say scapetofu, for a host of imaginary sins we associate with technology. The timing of this obsession is no surprise; never before has such complex technology occupied such a central place in the economy, to say nothing of daily life. Yet by and large, when we chew on the fruits of science, they are sweet. Thanks to science—not so much medical as industrial—life expectancy increases every year, mostly as a function of affluence. So why is science—to say nothing of the very idea of progress—so unfashionable?
One obvious reason is that, among the chattering classes, hardly anybody knows anything about it. Today’s children of the native-born bourgeoisie study cinema or gender studies or even marketing, but not so much physics or chemistry, at least in my experience. It’s indicative, perhaps, that in 2006 (the most recent year for which I could find data), foreign students earned nearly two-thirds of the U.S. doctorate degrees in engineering and computer sciences, while snaring about half of those in the physical sciences and math. Mercifully, many of these foreign students stay.
But for too many Americans, science is something alien and abstract. Max Weber observed nearly a century ago that, by explaining so many natural phenomena, science has lead to the “disenchantment” of the modern world. What a difference 100 years makes! Nowadays we’re surrounded by products of technology (from gelcaps to smartphones) whose essential workings are unintelligible to all but a specialized few. The result is that technology and ignorance have succeeded where religion has failed: in draping the world in a cloak of mystery, but one we find more threatening than enchanting.
With its great stress on specialization, capitalism has eroded the kind of homely technological skills Americans typically possessed a generation ago. Most of us no longer work on our own cars, for instance, and given electronic fuel injection and other newfangled features, we probably couldn’t even if we wanted to. Heck, a lot of us can’t even cook our own food.